The man died. The old soldier died. But the great man, the man of ideas and intellect, the man of conviction and purpose, the truly great leader who has imparted greatly on his people and humanity, never really dies.
The reason is simple: the great leader lives forever in the memory of the living and posterity. His ideas are etched in the footprints of the soul. His words are undying and unfading. His life a continuous reminder that all men may be born equal, but some (men) go on to be greater than others.
So, when we say a man is not dead, even when his cold body lies in the morgue awaiting the rites of passage and eventual lowering into the anonymity of the dusty void, his final abode, we are, in a manner of speaking, saying the man’s life and times are inspirational legacy, something to remember, to emulate. Or even to disapprove of; to applaud or disparage. But never apathy. A great man dies in a hail of controversy. Controversy, like adversity, it would seem, makes the great man even greater in death. Murtala Muhammed. Fela. JF Kennedy. Mahatma Ghandi. Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few.
So it is with the maverick soldier, philosopher, polemicist, thinker, political scientist, orator, leader and lover, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi and Eze Igbo Gburugburu, who died in a London hospital after a protracted battle with stroke. He died at 78, eight years past the biblical three score and ten. He was also, in his life time, many things to many people. A hero, rebel or villain, depending on where you stood. But a strong personality, a charismatic leader, no matter whether you loved or hated him.
Ojukwu’s life was dramatic and controversial. A billionaire’s son, he didn’t mind enlisting as a recruit in the Nigerian Army, just to prove to his father he was his own man. He had also, for the same reason, opted for History at the Oxford University instead of Law, which his dad wanted him to read.
He would later lead his people of the South-East to war against the rest of the country when he felt the oppression and injustice against Ndigbo had to be confronted with force of arms and secession. He lost and won. He lost the war to make Biafra an independent state, but won the hearts of his people who, until his last breath, continued to celebrate him as a folk hero and leader. His attempt at secession, even though crushed, has continued to draw attention to the fraudulent concepts of federalism, federal character and other bogus expressions that mean nothing in reality and practice. Masquerading our unitary system as federalism; a nation of first and second class citizens; a nation that treats some as special citizens, while others are the ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood.’
Ojukwu’s fight was for self-determinism. He wanted a country guaranteeing equal rights to every citizen, whether they be Igbo, Bini, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Tiv, Jukun, Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Kanuri or Basa. It is possible he could have also been driven by personal ambition (to be head of state), but no one could deny that the Igbo were being marginalised and massacred at the time the Ikemba took to the battlefield. Ojukwu was never afraid or ashamed to be called Igbo leader. He simply wanted a fairer deal for his people in the Nigerian nation. He fought that battle unto death.
Ojukwu, from what he himself told me, was uncomfortable about how the top echelon of the Nigerian establishment had continued to treat him after the defeat of Biafra. He believed he and the Igbo had never been fully integrated into the scheme of things “because we fought and lost a war. They came up with ‘no victor, no vanquished.’ But we know there are victors and vanquished. Their attitude towards Ndigbo afterwards shows that.”
As a reporter, one of my career highs was my three-part exclusive interview with the late Ikemba at his Enugu residence. Ojukwu told me the story of his life. How he was not always on good terms with his late billionaire dad because “the man always wanted to tell me what to do. And I didn’t always like that.” At Oxford University, he drove a Rolls Royce, while his lecturer, who never rode one, agreed to give him lectures as he drove round the campus. How would he describe his academic sojourn? “I passed my exams and did well enough to graduate,” he said. His rebellious streak would lead him to join the army against stiff opposition by his father. But he denied being a rebel: “Me, rebel? I only insist on what I believe is right!” He fought the civil war because “we were badly treated. We still are. And sooner than later, we will again demand our dues.”
His 12-year exile in Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), he described as “eventful, soul-searching. It gave me time to reflect about my people, about the country called Nigeria and the future of this sleeping giant that seemed afflicted with the sleeping sickness. Exile was one hell of an experience.”
He denied abandoning Biafra and Ndigbo ‘in search of peace,’ when he knew the war was over. “I didn’t run away,” he said, his voice rising. “If only those I left behind had held on a little longer. If only they weren’t in a hurry to surrender. If only…Well, all that is past now. It’s wrong to say I ran away. I am a General. Generals don’t run away. Tactical withdrawal, maybe. Run away, never!”
His regrets? “Nigeria has never really accepted me ever since the war ended.” Shock. What does he mean? I looked at his bulging eyeballs. There was pain in his eyes as he declared himself “a stateless person right now.” His voice was low and emotional as he described himself as “an alien living in Nigeria, despite being a Nigerian on both parentage.”
“No! Nigeria has never accepted me as a Nigerian since the war. I am a stateless person right now,” he said. He tried to fathom a reason the country was treating him shabbily, despite what he called his contribution to the society.
“Actually, a lot of Nigerians, when they look at themselves, are much less than they pretend to be. The only advantage they can call upon in dealing with me is the advantage they can summon by presenting me as a non-Nigerian. They will always throw that up.”
Speaking on the Igbo presidency, the former warlord debunked “the erroneous view” that the Igbo would break away from Nigeria once it got the presidency. “The Igbo with their feet have already voted for Nigeria. They are living all over the place. They are carrying out their businesses all over the place. They are not afraid of being Nigerians. They are the ones you see all over the world, in diaspora and so on.
“Now, there are a lot of people who, out of crass opportunism, will like to hold the war against Ndigbo and that, sooner than later, has to stop. We have to stop it. Because, really, talking about secession, the North has talked about secession much more than Ndigbo. Remember, they even chose to delay Independence. Why don’t we, many years later, continue to doubt their purpose? People who didn’t want independence? The Yoruba have also, at every conference held, come out quite clearly, wanting, opting for their own state and so on. Nobody uses that against them. But against the Igbo, it is to put it before them and to silence them.”
At over three score and ten, you can’t call Ojukwu a young man. So, I asked him if he’s had a fulfilled life and if he had any regrets or things he wished he had done differently. Sure, he had personal regrets.
He wished, for example, he had read Law, if only to please his late dad. “I wish I had taken his advice and become a professional lawyer. We quarreled over that. He wanted it and I said no, I decide for myself. I’d study History.”
He also has another regret. “There is something I regret in Nigeria. Because I happened to be at the leadership level of the Biafran war, I have been denied all the privileges of ever being a Nigerian. You and I are talking without any rancour. But as soon as this appears in print, the comment that you will get will be: you know he is not a Nigerian? He is anti-Nigeria. He is…”
Now, Ojukwu is dead. All kinds of nice things and other eulogies are being showered on him. Many leaders have described him as a great Nigerian who rendered invaluable services to Ndigbo and the nation. They are right. But for their statements not to be dismissed as hypocritical, the Federal Government must find a way of immortalising Ojukwu by naming important monuments after him and according him his proper place in Nigeria’s hall of fame That is one way to convince Ndigbo that the unfortunate fratricidal feud is truly over. His faults notwithstanding, his fight against his fatherland notwithstanding, his sometimes eclectic disposition notwithstanding, no one can deny that Ojukwu was indeed a great Igbo man, a great Nigerian and a proud African/Black man. He was pilloried for his strong views and called all sorts of names by people who hated his guts because he was misunderstood. That was the price he had to pay for his greatness. So, be it!
N.B This piece was first published Monday, November 28, 2011